A High-Risk Commute

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As anyone who’s driven through rush-hour traffic will attest, a long commute can take its toll on your patience. But for pregnant women, it’s not just annoying — it can be harmful, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the UW and Lehigh University found that pregnant women who travel long distances to work face increased risks of adverse birth outcomes. With a 50-mile baseline, the study found that for every additional 10 miles traveled, the probability of having an infant with a low birth weight increased by 14 percent. The probability of slowed fetal growth increased by 43 percent, compared to the average rate of women who lived within 10 miles of their workplaces.

The study noted two key factors: an increase in chronic stress and a decrease in prenatal care — both heavily tied to birth outcomes. It found that women with long commutes are less likely to complete their first prenatal visit on time and attend fewer appointments overall.

Most troubling is the self-reinforcing mechanism, says Yang Wang MIPA’03, coauthor of the study and a UW associate professor of public affairs. A woman with a long work commute is in greater need of prenatal care because of the added stress — but she’s less likely to get that care because of the time commitment of her drive.

Wang believes employers can help by providing workers the flexibility to occasionally work from home or to take job-protected leave. Eventually, she hopes the definition of maternity leave will expand to cover part of the prenatal period. “Babies are among our most vulnerable populations,” she says. “If our policymakers can come up with ideas that cover prenatal care, then that will push the U.S. up a lot in terms of family-friendly policies.”

Published in the Fall 2019 issue

Tags: Health and medicine, Research

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